Arts & Culture

Exhibit unveils forgotten photos

4 min read

Works from once-vibrant Social Museum on display again

An early 20th century visitor to Harvard – especially if he or she were a forward-thinking person who believed that science was the best approach to solving society’s problems – would probably be eager to climb to the top floor of Emerson Hall to see the newly installed Social Museum.

The museum was the brainchild of Francis Greenwood Peabody, the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and founder of the Department of Social Ethics, which later became the Sociology Department. Peabody believed that just as biology students had the Museum of Comparative Zoology and anthropology students had the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, students who wanted to study social conditions needed a museum of their own, a place where they could contemplate the ills of modern life and the methods used to ameliorate them.

The Social Museum comprised nearly 4,500 photographs and 1,500 graphical illustrations, as well as diagrams, blueprints, booklets, handcrafted objects, and other ephemera. There were photographs of children in orphanages, tubercular patients in sanatoriums, “mental defectives” in asylums, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, and families of tenement dwellers manufacturing cigars in their apartments. Students could study charts and statistics illustrating the modern German system of wage insurance or view materials donated by various European institutions showing how labor camps were being utilized to deal with the problem of homelessness.

This extraordinary collection continued to be employed as a teaching resource until the 1930s, but as the optimism of the Progressive Era waned, the Social Museum fell into disuse. The specially designed cabinets and rotating frames that held the exhibition boards were moved from Emerson to Robinson Hall, and in the process large portions of the collection were nearly discarded.

In the late 1960s, the collection became part of the Carpenter Center’s photography collection, under the care of curator Barbara Norfleet. A photographer herself as well as a social psychologist, Norfleet recognized the importance of the photos, some of which had been taken by well-known documentary photographers such as Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and Frances Benjamin Johnston. In 1973, Norfleet created an exhibition from the material that traveled to the Museum of Modern Art.

But afterward, the photos and other materials went back into storage, this time jammed into the eaves of Sever Hall. They remained there until 2002 when the Fogg Museum took over the stewardship of the Carpenter Center’s photography collection. It was then that Deborah Martin Kao, the Richard L. Menschel Curator of Photography, and Michelle Lamunière, the Charles C. Cunningham Sr. Assistant Curator of Photography, first took a good look at the collection.

“Our jaws just began to drop,” said Lamunière, “not only because of the sheer quantity of material, but because it included some very fine examples of early documentary photography.”

Kao and Lamunière have organized the exhibition now at the Sackler Museum, titled “Classified Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903-1931.” It will be on display until June 10.

The title refers to the way Peabody and other Progressive Era reformers tended to classify social problems into strict categories, as though in an attempt to impose order on what was a time of massive and often chaotic social change.

“There was an emphasis on establishing institutions and agencies to alleviate the problems of modern industrial society, like immigration, for example. By 1900 one-third of the country was foreign born. There was enormous pressure on the cities that threatened the idea of what it meant to be an American,” said Kao.

Mirroring the categorical approach of its founder, Kao and Lamunière have divided the exhibition into three sections: poor relief, social justice, and industrial betterment. Many of the photos and graphic materials are displayed on the original boards, with original typed or handwritten labels. Overall, they have tried to present the material in a way that is as close as possible to how a visitor in the early 20th century would have experienced it.

The curators hope that this time the Social Museum will continue to be a resource for students and scholars even after the present exhibition comes to an end. Toward that goal, a major portion of the collection is being digitized and made available online as part of the Open Collections Program. In addition, a symposium on the collection is being planned for April 21, followed by publication in book form of the papers scheduled for presentation.

“Usually, an exhibition is the end point of a research effort,” Kao said. “But we wanted to use it to recontextualize this collection and engage our colleagues in studying it.”

Classified Documents: The Social Museum of Harvard University, 1903-1931,’ at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum, 485 Broadway, Cambridge. On exhibit through June 10. Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.